Poem of the Week | September 28, 2015

This week we feature a new poem by Julia Thacker. Thacker’s poems and stories have appeared in AGNI, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, The North American Review and others. Twice a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, she has received a Pushcart Prize, a fellowship from the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe (now the Radcliffe Institute), and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Author’s note:

In my imaginary anthology Libraries I Have Known and Loved, the first poem would have to be Ode to the Bookmobile. Once a week that tiny converted milk truck of books crawled up the alley of the housing project where my brother and I spent our chaotic childhoods, as reliable as the seasons. With sticky hands and Popsicle-smeared faces we entered its sanctum of wonders, often hunkering down right there on the floor, each with a new found book as the engine ticked beneath us.
Whether a milk truck-turned bookmobile or a vaulted cathedral of volumes, a library for me is not only a keeper of history and literature but also a place of refuge. There is a religiosity to the silence and peace of reading rooms. There is an open door policy and books are free; for some, it’s a heaven on earth.
My first inspiration for this poem was a haunting photograph of an abandoned and decaying library interior re-posted on Instagram. After much digging, I discovered the image was actually a miniature diorama created by the artist Lori Nix. My thoughts then turned to my uncle who migrated to Detroit from the Appalachian mountains and worked in an auto plant for over thirty years. In the aftermath of tragedy he found sanctuary in the reading room of his neighborhood library, now shuttered and fallen to ruin. I thought about what is lost each time a library closes its doors, and about the spirits that still linger there.


For An Abandoned Library in Detroit


Chancellors of the Sky, Provosts
of Rain, My Good Sirs:
A tangle of sumac
and wild grape vines have overrun
the study carrels.
There is a hole in the ceiling.
I wish to report saplings rooted
in the cracked checkerboard tiles, upended
and thick with sod. And young maples —
one sprung up to the second floor, towed by sunlight —
brushing the volumes shelved on the balcony.


Downstairs, a globe still sits in its cradle.
Cathedral windows remain intact.
But I must note the card catalog
collapsed on its haunches,
the encyclopedia splayed out accordion-style.
Inside the rain-plastered pages of War and Peace,
the Russian Empire has been bored
by earthworms. Old Man Tolstoy
crouches on a pyramid of bricks in the corner,
his night shirt like a sail, white beard
scrolled to the ground.


Small combustions erupt sometimes, perhaps
ignited by the pulp writers who snigger
and smoke in the stacks. I wish to report
illuminated manuscripts swollen and sun-burned;
a libretto, wind-chapped; leather bound great books,
male and swarthy, sprouting mushroom fungus;
Middlemarch velveted pool-table green.


Charles Dickens has eucalyptus on his breath.
Chancellors, the clouds are darkening
like ink smudged on a printer’s hands.
Squalls gust in their wake. Gentlemen,
withhold your garland of winds, your
hurricanes with Christian names.
Allow this newly feral world
to unravel slowly. Let this repository stand
for the sake of the minor scholar who napped
in Special Collections for two decades
dreaming of Lorca’s olive trees.
For the Polish violinist harboring a paperback
copy of Lolita overdue since 1961.
For my Uncle John, thirty years on an assembly line,
who one afternoon watched the new pipefitter fall
from the catwalk into a ladle of hot steel,
my uncle who reported to his shift the next day
and afterward walked to the library and stared into a book
as though it were a tablet of water
because he didn’t know what else to do,
because his mother had read him poetry on Sunday mornings in Kentucky,
because the boy was dead and he was not.