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If you borrow this book, you have to return it: Heather Christle.

March 1, 2011 \pm\31 2:01 pm

[For this series, I’ve asked many wondrous writers to reflect on an individual copy of a book that is very important to them. Writers and publishers have varied and often impassioned relationships to their analog books, as actual books are still arguably the “realest” physical manifestation of their poetic pursuits. I think that as the Kindle and other digital representations of text continue their upward spiral, it’s important to reflect on books as the uniquely funky-smelling, emotion-provoking, paper-cutting, dust/coffee/spaghetti sauce-collecting artifacts that they are! Check back next week for more top picks!]
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Heather Christle is the author of The Difficult Farm (Octopus 2009) and The Trees The Trees (forthcoming from Octopus this summer). A chapbook, The Seaside!, was published by Minutes Books in 2010. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, The Believer, Fence, Gulf Coast, The New Yorker, and SUPERMACHINE. She is the Web Editor of jubilat, and teaches poetry at Emory University. More information is at heatherchristle.blogspot.com.


I am terrible at keeping track of books. I have just realized, in scanning the shelves, that we are missing our second copy of The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. (Our first copy was only recently returned by a student of mine—a new aficionado—and so we are working our way back to proper Spicer system redundancy levels.) In college I lent my (first edition, signed) copy of Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s to a “friend,” and never saw it again.

The books I do hang onto I abuse. They’re dog-eared, wildly foxed, stained with coffee and sandwich juice (that’s real), and their covers’ corners are far from the sharp angles they once were. This man I live with, Chris DeWeese, collects first editions, many of which (Infinite Jest, in particular) I am not allowed to read.

I could write about a beloved book given to me by a beloved friend (Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round, a gift from Madeline ffitch, its formerly bright dust jacket now a rosy-but-not-red hue), but it would not accurately represent what books and I do to each other.

Instead I will tell you about the Foreign Service Institute’s Spanish Basic Course Units 1-15 and Spanish Basic Course Units 16-30, two magnificent volumes published by the Department of State in 1961, and whose destruction I have been overseeing since 2007.

SBCU entered my life as have done many of my possessions, via the annual Huggins Hospital Street Fair in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire (my hometown). Early in August every year, Brewster Field is overtaken by tents, tourists, a Ferris wheel, my kindergarten classmates, and thousands of second-, third-, and fourth-hand objects, which demand I purchase them immediately. While I can spend ages in the “Ladies White Elephant” and “Men’s White Elephant” tents (they house dishware and typewriters, respectively), it doesn’t take me long at all to work my way through the book tent. I know what I am looking for and what I am looking for is foreign language textbooks.

Because that is where the poetry lives. See for yourself!

1  The patio looks very neat.

2  The apartment is unoccupied.

3  The desk is unoccupied.

4  The kitchen looks very neat.

5  The house looks very neat.

6  The rooms are unoccupied.

7  The houses are unoccupied.

Or perhaps you would like to see things as they are? (Okay Wallace.)

What appeals to me, I think, is the insistence on grammar and repetition as unifying forces, while plot drifts in and out of reason. The poems that make me happiest are those that give me the sense I am once again learning to speak and to read. To live with Carmen and Jose as they drill each other on what they want (to eat, to live in, from love, from the weather) is to feel a great swelling of joy and confusion. These books are books of deranged arrangement.

They are, in fact, so deeply arranged that even what is left behind, after snippets have been borrowed for other purposes (forging a new poem for the aforementioned Madeline, for instance), remains poetry:

And I am glad to say I am not the only one who’s interfered with these pages. For a good long while in Northampton, Massachusetts, our hallway featured a (literal) laundry line of collaged poems lifted from SBCU by excellent persons like Lyndsey Cohen and Seth Parker. Too, there was much tearing and cutting of the books the night of December 31, 2007, in the middle of a New Year’s Eve party that saw Seth Landman named Man of the Year. (He has since been succeeded by Brian Mihok and, most recently, Guy Pettit, the subject of this film.)

These are books from which one can endlessly borrow, and to which I endlessly return. They can withstand my damaging attention and love of distribution. Unruinable, they only open more.

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3 Comments
  1. Trey permalink
    March 1, 2011 \pm\31 7:08 pm 7:08 pm

    “And here’s John without any dollars!”

    just excellent. great post. plus, the new yorker? that’s pretty cool.

  2. Seth Landman permalink
    March 1, 2011 \pm\31 7:20 pm 7:20 pm

    That was a great party and a great apartment and this was a great essay by a great poet.

  3. March 9, 2011 \am\31 2:06 am 2:06 am

    Heather, do you use these fragments to make entire poems composed of fragments or are they just *inspiration*?

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