A book, handed with knowledge and genuine enthusiasm from one person to another can have thoroughly unforeseen consequences. Here’s a clear example…
Early one afternoon a woman spent a deliciously long time, an hour at least, pondering books in the store. She sat with a variety of books stacked next to her on the bench that runs up the center of our narrow store looking through them. Her stack grew and shrank and grew, but one book by Vasko Popa remained through each purge. I saw this and wanted to say something to her. My sometimes rule is that when I hear the same unmade comment in my head three times I will (usually) say it.
I spoke up and said we had recently sold out of a couple of other books by Popa. One was a “Collected,” the other was Homage to Lame Wolf, a book I like a great deal, which I told her was translated by “Simic.” I used Charles Simic’s last name because I assume a certain amount of knowledge in people who appear to be considerate poetry shoppers and because I feel like the informality establishes a common ground, a kind of familial interacting that perhaps improves the likelihood of a sale. She listened attentively, then said “Simic?” I stepped our conversation back and told her some of the story of Charles Simic, who as a child survived World War II in Yugoslavia then came to the U.S. as a young man in the late ‘50’s. He has gone on to publish, edit, and translate a large number of poetry and prose books. His voice is distinctive: witty, dark, and terse. He once was Poet Laureate of the U.S..
The store is fairly small, so while I talked I took down a copy of Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers, co-edited by Simic and Mark Strand, which contains several pages of Simic’s translations of Popa, and handed it to her. I explained the connection, told her to please leave books on the bench for me to reshelve, and left her to look it over. I went back to my perch by the till.
Among the oh-so-much I did not tell her was this– when I was a returning student at the University of Washington pursuing an English degree and interested in short fiction, I was required to take a poetry class. I chose an evening workshop taught by Nelson Bentley. But it was also taught by a cadre of students who sat in the corner and were very passionate about poetry. Early on one of them, years younger than I, a wiry character named Bob Antonelli who often quoted the Sex Pistols, handed me a copy of Simic’s Return to a Place Lit By a Glass of Milk and said, “You have to read this.” I was enthralled by the book. I can remember a few other details from that life-changing class; Simic, however, is more than a memory. I have read and admired his work for decades since. I have no idea what became of Bob Antonelli.
Looking over the anthology I’d handed her, she said “Oh, it’s got Italo Calvino. I love him.” Great to hear. But my inner voice nagged me about something, nagged so much I had to address it.
I said, “That really is a great anthology except that there are no women in it. That doesn’t diminish the quality of the male writers they included. They all turned out to be a heavy hitters. But there certainly were qualified woman, too.” I said that because I am somewhat embarrassed by that aspect of that otherwise terrific anthology and I don’t want to seem ignorant or complicit if/when whomever I hand the book sees the disparity. I was still at the till when I said this and I didn’t watch her for a reaction.
She was several minutes on the bench with the book, then said, “I like his translations best.” I asked if she’d read his poetry, and she said no. I went to the shelf and handed her his Selected Early Poems, when he wrote more like Vasko Popa, and a couple of his more recent volumes. She sat with them for several minutes and I found work to do at the till.
Finally, she walked up with the Selected Early Poems, said, “I’d like to buy this and could you order me his translation of Popa?” I told her we would be more than glad to, and that it is not a book we want to be out of stock of for any length of time.
When we got Homage to Lame Wolf back in the store I sent her an e-mail. She came in soon thereafter and was pleased to get it. And I was pleased to be a part of her discovery of Simic and his fine translations of Popa’s fine poetry. She thanked me. I thank Bob Antonelli.
John W. Marshall, along with Christine Deavel, co-owns and operates Open Books: A Poem Emporium, the seventeen-year-old poetry-only bookstore in Seattle. He publishes poetry under the name J.W. Marshall because the late, lamented Seattle Post Intelligencer had, as its book editor, a John Marshall whom this John Marshall was not. He won the 2007 Field Poetry Prize, and his first book, Meaning a Cloud, was published in 2008 by Oberlin College Press.