Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Ode to an Encyclopedia

Ode to an Encyclopedia
By James Arthur

O hefty hardcover on the built-in shelf in my parents’ living
O authority stamped on linen paper, molted from your dust
      jacket ,
Questing Beast of blue and gold, you were my companion

on beige afternoons that came slanting through the curtains
behind the rough upholstered chair. You knew how to trim a
and how the hornet builds a hive. You had a topographical map

of the mountain ranges on the far side of the moon
and could name the man who shot down the man
who murdered Jesse James. At forty, I tell myself

that boyhood was all enchantment: hanging around the railway,
getting plastered on cartoons; I see my best friend’s father
marinating in a lawn chair, smiling benignly at his son and me

from above a gin and tonic, or sitting astride his roof
with carpentry nails and hammer, going at some problem
that kept resisting all his mending. O my tome, my paper

my narrative without an ending, you had a diagram of a cow
broken down into the major cuts of beef, and an image
of the Trevi Fountain. The boarding house,

the church on the corner: all that stuff is gone.
In winter in Toronto, people say, a man goes outside
and shovels snow mostly so that his neighbors know

just how much snow he is displacing. I’m writing this
in Baltimore. For such a long time, the boy wants
to grow up and be at large, but posture becomes bearing;

bearing becomes shape. A man can make a choice
between two countries, believing all the while
that he will never have to choose.

About This Poem

When discussing this poem, poet James Arthur said, “It’s now almost unimaginable to me that for the first half of my life, I had no access to the Internet. What I did have is my parents’ hardbound, single-volume encyclopedia: a book that seemed to contain a scrap of information on almost every subject. For me ‘Ode to an Encyclopedia’ is about the openness of the open field; when we’re children, we can still believe that we’ll have time to go everywhere, see everything, and do it all.” I can remember the set of blue World Book Encyclopedias my parents had.  We used them for many school projects, but what I temper most is that they spawned my love of knowledge.  I'll be turning 38 at the end of this month, so just like Arthur, the first half of my life I had no access to the Internet and it seemed like all the knowledge in the world were contained in those blue volumes.  Now if something interests me and I want to know more, I Google it, but back then, I'd pulled down the appropriate encyclopedia and begin flipping through. The problem was, there were always things I'd see on the way to finding my main article that had drawn me to the books.  With those other articles, I'd hold its place with a finger and continue on.  By the time I had turned to the article I wanted, I usually had four or five fingers holding different things I wanted to read about next.  One or more of them would lead me to putti that volume back up and getting down another and the process began again.  Now with the Internet it is so much easier because you just right clicks, and open up a new tab. There's an almost infinite number of tabs you can open though, but I only had so many fingers.  I will get immersed in article after article, each one taking me to a new piece of knowledge.

James Arthur is the author of Charms Against Lightning (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). He teaches at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore, Maryland.


Susan said...

Oh, the memories. I too grew up with the ever-present encyclopedia in the house. For me it was Colliers. I didn't know anyone else who had that brand. For everyone it seemed to be Britannica. As much as I loved exploring all the topics, what bothered me was realizing as each year passed, I no longer had to newest edition and was reading "old" information. :)

This is the first time I've ever read a poem about the encyclopedia. Thanks for that, Joe.

Anonymous said...

I've seen pictures of encyclopedias and the public library has three or four different sets. This makes me want to explore what they're about. Thanks!

Michael Dodd said...

I love this! My father sold The American People's Encyclopedia to supplement his junior college salary for a couple of years, and we had a set at home that I devoured as a kid. I was so proud of myself when I learned how to spell encyclopedia from Jiminy Cricket on the original "Mickey Mouse Club." Decades before your time, child of grace!

Amanda said...

I do remember using the encyclopedia a lot when I was younger especially for school reports/ papers. :)

naturgesetz said...

Encyclopedias (or encyclopædia in the case of the Britannica) were great sources of information. The fun of finding something fascinating on the way to what you were actually looking up was great. I find it's easier to waste more time looking as successive videos than was the case with encyclopedia artiocles.

Atlases were good, too, for information and distraction.