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Poets Online Archive


July 2023  -  Issue #310

The first time I read “The Bookstall” by Linda Pastan (from Carnival Evening) I paused at the second line and thought her greediness would come from seeing other people who had books and wanting to be one of those writers. I was wrong. I was projecting my own greediness at that time.

Her greediness was wanting to read all of them. All those unread books led her to believe that "life is continuous / as long as they wait / to be read." That's a nice thought, though completely unrealistic.

I saw a t-shirt at a film festival that said "I can't die because there are so many films I still have to see." I too have many things I still want and plan to do, but that doesn't lead to immortality.

This month's prompt was very simple: books. But that broad simplicity leads to many possibilities. What do books mean to you? Escape? Enlightenment? As June arrives, are you getting together a summer reading list? Do you envy writers or think you could write something as good or better? Do you like to write but don't enjoy reading? Do you have shelves of books unread? Are they there just for show? Have you been cleaning out your book collection, or are you unable to browse a bookstore of garage sale and not walk away without getting something to add to your shelves

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


We had a ton of books between us –
textbooks & novels, forestry, birds, poetry.
English, French, German, Old Provençal….
While we were gone one year, winter
storm soaked boxes of books in storage,
then summer baked them to adobe bricks.
Irreplaceable, even with insurance.
We bought more books, just off-the-press
or dusty dog-eared. In time we had to down-
size, sold a heaping pickup load
to a used book dealer. What he couldn’t sell
he’d donate to 3rd world countries.
You built floor-to-ceiling bookshelves
in a much smaller house. In the end, Time
took you too –first edition that you were,
unique and irreplaceable. The shelves
you built – overloaded with books – tipped
and sagged, trapping volumes or sliding
them topsy-turvy on the floor. Now
it’s time to clean house, giving so much away,
holding each book in my hands. Our lives
in the books we kept. These dear old friends.

Taylor Graham


Meeting in the B aisle after class
knowing that no one reads philosophy anymore
we traced fingertips around wrists, across lifelines
while feigning scrutiny of titles and authors
anticipating the transcendent moment of frisson’s return.

Rob Friedman


When I get to the end of a book I like, I like
to go back to the beginning. Beginning
with the front matter (I like the phrase front matter,
its vaguely scientific ring), I like lingering
in the blurbs, then the copyright history, then right
on to the first page. The first sentence. I like to reread
that first sentence. And the second sentence.
Then the first paragraph, letting it pull me in, in
the way of currents, riptides, until I’ve dived
right back into the flow of the book, a book
that was so good when I got to the end I said, “God,
that was amazing, how did the writer do that?” That
is the question a good book begs. And I begin
looking for answers, finding them again and again.

Paul Hostovsky


They were gifts
for good grades, a birthday, holiday, because I was home sick from school
They were sailing ships
to foreign lands, hero journeys, quests, guidebooks, secret diaries of women
that I would never meet but fell in love with
I was a boy errant
reading in my bed on hot no breeze summer nights with both windows open
Books had all the answers
I am like an old Sancho Panza.
I no longer see a knight on a horse tilting at windmills
but an old man on an ass with a stick in his hand
and something shiny on the top of his head
and I fall asleep with the unread volume
slipping from my hands and I don’t dream
about anything that hasn’t already happened
in this book of mine in which
I will never know the ending

Charles Michaels


Google is now the
source of all human knowledge.
What could go wrong there?
Tyrannies burn books.
Ideologues love the heat
from notions they hate.
Behold! All I read!
See my sophistication!
(Never mind the dust.)
Strike across the head.
Spine driven into the throat.
Small paper cuts hurt!
Just because I sit
Next to you on this slow train
Does not mean I speak.
Old Trees.
Turn that page. Is there
still a slight echo of its
arboreal roots?
The Power of Now -
notice how the very words
magically invoke...
Funny, scary, life-
changing, thought-provoking. Each
page a portal to...

Robert Best


After the stroke, in a hospital bed
His only concerns were his cats and his books
Would I feed his three cats?
I assured him I would

The books were stored in a brownstone he owned
In a vacant apartment, on the very top floor
A leak in the roof had damaged some rooms
He needed to know his books were secure

There were hundreds of boxes
They filled every room
Pristine first editions , dog-eared paperbacks
Stuffed into boxes, piled on racks

There were classics, Sci-Fi, non-fiction and porn
Poetry, comics, science and more
Some pages intact, some tattered and torn
Stacked high on tables, strewn all over the floor

After the stroke, he moved several times
Lived with us for awhile, and awhile with Mom
His books found a home in an unheated barn
Mixed in with stuff he’d forgotten he owned

When he died, he left me to clean up his mess
Bank accounts and investments, spread across several firms
Two cats, an old Outback, a thousand CDs
Some cash for my grandkids, my daughter … and me

By then, all his books were covered with mold
Lost so much of their value, they could barely be sold
Hauled away in the back of a huge U-Haul truck
By a guy panning for gold and counting on luck

My brother treasured his books
Almost as much as his cats
A magical, parallel, alternate world —
With his beautiful mind, he liked living like that

Frank Kelly


Books are like breath.
They nurture, heal, fill us with wonder,
And help us grow. I cannot live without them.
One year, I gave up chocolate for Lent.
It was torture, and I will never again
Make such a rash commitment.
I should have learned that lesson from
“The Franklin’s Tale.”
And everyone who has read Beowulf knows
If you make a promise, you have to keep it,
Or die. That’s why I didn’t give up books.
My husband says, “Just use your Kindle.
Don’t carry that heavy book on the plane.”
“A Kindle is not a book,” I grumble under my breath.
Books have pages and a secret scent.
They have weight and texture.
You can turn through the pages and peek ahead.
You can make notes in the margins
Or even pull out your pink highlighter
And mark the parts that you never want to forget.
Books are life-long friends.
The comfort of knowing they will always be with us
Is more precious than pearls.
I’ve been through a lot, but the only panic attack of my lifetime
Occurred when I couldn’t find the Norton Anthology
Of English Literature in its usual place in the center of the shelf,
The place of honor where I can reach for it
Whenever I need a dose of Keats.
Books never die. My father died,
But his Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer,
Cambridge Edition, Copyright 1933, and edited by F. N. Robinson,
Will never leave me. My father’s name, written in black ink
With a fountain pen, is on the first page, along with a notation
In pencil, in some store clerk’s handwriting: $3.60,
The price of my dad’s textbook when he took Chaucer in 1936.
That was a lot of money during the Great Depression,
But the treasure trove of gold that book opened
Is life itself to me.

Rose Anna Higashi


Hands ruffled through libraries shelves
as if restocking cereal boxes in a supermarket

selecting one book, shoving another
in vacant spaces out of dewy decimal order.

Yes, we studied at the library, but spent
more time observing classmates than emersion

in historical texts, art books, Shakespearian plays,
ecology missives, or Darwin compendiums.

Long before cell phones helped shield
overt flirtation, we passed handwritten

notes, mutely mouthed our responses—
hushed, hushed, hushed—never uttering a word.

The library provided a social sanctum
for people such as I who seldom engaged

in sports, never wore letterman sweaters,
walked with little swagger, yet enjoyed books.

The stacks housed romances, mysteries, classical epics—
and girls who blew silent kisses across writing tables.

Sterling Warner


My attic, garage, and rooms housing beds,
Are stuffed to the rafters with colourful books.
Impressive, ancient, hard-backed, sublime,
In pristine condition, but mostly, unread.
I sneak past them all, with furtive looks,
I sidle past on the way to my bed,
Avoiding their silent, bitter resentment.
"Tonight, I will go straight to sleep, instead."

These Classic works of English Fiction,
These Masterpieces of a writer's craft,
These Paragons of form and diction,
Lie stacked upon the shelves, unread.
Gorgeous books with exotic themes,
Lie sullen and reproachful,
Their words unsaid.
We failed to make a connection,
So, it seems.
Too challenging for my concentration!
Abandoned, unopened, all forlorn.
Seeded, conceived, and gone full-term,
But lying there, alas, still born.

A mis-used phrase, a far-fetched plot,
Simulating truth from what is not,
Turns me away, a disgruntled lover,
Searching around to find another,
Seeking perfection from beneath their covers.
So, now distracted by my mobile phone,
I scroll down, happily, all on my own.

John Botterill


When I open a library book
for the first time,
I hope to find descriptions
luscious as lobster in melted butter,
characters I'd like to invite for a drink,
a story so absorbing
I can't think about anything else.

But I often find much more,

like the government check
for seventeen dollars
(someone's payment for jury duty)
in Playwriting for Dummies
or the note in a novel--
a child's drawing of a frown
and a message printed
in purple crayon:
"I am still mad at you.
Love, Clarie."

I've found books with crumbs
wedged into the gutter
like soldiers marching in line formation
and books with cat hair on every page,
clingy as a two-year-old.
I blow like a Nor'easter and brush the paper
till my fingers are numb,
but it will not come off.
So I have to laugh
when posters plastered around the town
for National Library Week proclaim,
"Expect the unexpected
at your local library."

Susan Spaeth Cherry


They tower over my head, row on row,
like sentinels guarding sacred treasure,
large, small, hard, paper, quarto, folio, thin,
fat—all with gaudy spines, arranged by era,
Gilgamesh to McEwan, Iliad to Stamm,
each a moment, a microcosm, a life in a life,
a world discovered then abandoned,
islands in a mind lived among relics.
The smell of the new book, the fragile
browning of the old, the collecting and
cataloging, the libraries and their stacks,
the quiet of contemplation and the excited
discoveries, the pervasive silence and the
swoosh of chilled air, words piled upon
words as minds reach across abysses to
touch the now, to spark the mind, to expand
the parenthesis of life into immortality.
Worlds imagined, lived, reported,
the past with all its cruelty and greed,
all its eureka moments, personal
tragedies and transcendence, war
upon war with its bravery and
desolation, the beauty and yearning
of poetry, the discoveries of the lonely
mind and the collective wisdom,
the tragic, the comic, the mundane.
      Is there a difference between Push-pen
and poetry, should we just “get stewed” as
Larkin wrote, is “there no end to their making”
and their study “wearisome to the flesh”?
      Yes. And No. Books are as evanescent as
bubbles, as fragile as a spider’s web, as fleeting as
dew, but as long as there are minds to read
them they will speak of our being to the universe:
“We were here, we lived and we strove, and we
left these footprints to mark our passing.”

Rob Miller