Friday, May 1, 2009

Poetry Displaced

One can't work in retail for any length of days without a sigh, come May. For every innovative display, for every clever sign or surprising arrangement of stock in a window, come the first of May, mothering season comes again, and with it, the most awful insipidity. Now, every boy loves his mother, and I certainly love my own, but what gets put out for Mother's Day is always embarrassing. Booksellers tend to be clever people -- I make no other intellectual claims for my profession -- and, as such, we tend to try, at least, not to indulge too much in retail cliches. Good booksellers try to avoid the usual hearts & flowers come Valentine's Day, for instance, always pushing Pablo Neruda's Love: Ten Poems, rather than the more saccharine anthologies so favored by stationers and the like in February. Saint Patrick's Day tends to bring out genuine Irish history, travel narratives, and perhaps books on home-brewing or pub-guides. But Mother's Day displays, in even the best bookstores, are not exercises in subtlety. Books are displayed to sell and it does not pay to suggest that any customer's mother would be flattered to received a DVD of "Mommy Dearest," or a dark memoir of parental failure, such as Francine Du Plessix Gray's Them: A Memoir of Parents. Mary Gordon's Circling My Mother: A Memoir and Ruth Reichl's Not Becoming My Mother & Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way, are about as "edgy" as one can afford to be when making suggestions for mamas. And in a larger bookstore, such as the one in which I happily work, whatever books one might put out on the Mother's Day table, the signs produced, unless made on the sly and put up before more level heads are allowed to prevail, will always be in mild pastels and gentle florals. It's no good fighting.

For me there is another painful fact attached to the coming of Mother's Day, it signals the end of National Poetry Month. Such invented modern occasions in the calendar tend to make the eyes of intellectuals not "in trade" roll wildly. The idea that poetry need be celebrated and sold only in April is absurd. But the state of poetry as a commercial publishing enterprise is such that for any help booksellers can find to sell the stuff, we are grateful, honestly. For one month of every year, no objections are raised to featuring a table full of poetry books, posters are produced, promotions made, recommendations solicited from staff, a fuss made. In the bookstore where I work, an in-store anthology is attractively produced every year, with poems selected by staff. This is distributed free to our customers.

It isn't true that poetry goes unsold the rest of the year. It is true that keeping an extensive selection of poetry in any commercial bookstore is more a matter of love than commerce. So to be able, however briefly, to promote not a single new title, by Mary Oliver say, but poetry, feels quite wonderful. It is selfish, but I am entirely happy to see April come around every year, bringing the possibility of a poetry display with it.

And now, it's done. Mother's Day has triumphed yet again. The displays are awash again in sentimental cutesy-pooh, even if the books display has some dignity almost despite itself, and certainly in defiance of the pink and mint-green signage. But I miss the poems, already gone before even the tulips. Sigh.

So one last poem, for April, on the end of Spring, among other things. This translation from Ezra Pound.


Here are flowers and here is wine,
But where’s a friend with me to join
Hand in hand and heart to heart
In one full cup before we part?

Rather than to drink alone,
I’ll make bold to ask the moon
To condescend to lend her face
The hour and the scene to grace.

Lo, she answers, and she brings
My shadow on her silver wings;
That makes three, and we shall be.
I ween, a merry company

The modest moon declines the cup,
But shadow promptly takes it up,
And when I dance my shadow fleet
Keeps measure with my flying feet.

But though the moon declines to tipple
She dances in yon shining ripple,
And when I sing, my festive song,
The echoes of the moon prolong.

Say, when shall we next meet together?
Surely not in cloudy weather,
For you my boon companions dear
Come only when the sky is clear.

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