And the Book Read Me
By Jay Wickersham
All summer I sat in the backyard
in a canvas chair, under a branch
of our neighbor’s apple tree
that hung over the fence, reading
that damn, wonderful, endless book,
and the book read me.
I didn’t choose any of the new translations,
or my mother’s old thick clothbound set. I chose
the three-volume paperback
I’d meant to read after college, wreathed
like a Paris metro stop in art nouveau
silver and black.
It had the right heft; the spine
relaxed and fell open in my lap
when I sat in my chair.
Sometimes I’d go out before breakfast.
The day’s coming heat paced like a lion
behind cool bars of air.
Dew darkened my shoes; my coffee steamed;
I started to read. I meant to go to the provincial town,
take a leisured walk
beside the river or through flower-dotted fields,
or lie awake in bed late into the night
while the grownups’ talk
drifted up from the garden. But instead I went
to a Connecticut suburb, white colonial, rotten boards found
in the woods and dragged home
to make a backyard fort. Or curled under the kitchen table,
while the washing machine purred like a great cat over
angry voices in the next room.
I wanted the book to accompany me into society:
love affairs and intrigues, champagne-soaked
nights on the town.
Where love may be faithless, but is always
well dressed: top hat and walking stick,
or a half-open gown.
But the book returned me to an 18-year-old’s hell
of blue-jeaned jealousy and longing,
not knowing how to dance.
Always the wrong time, the wrong words,
the wrong gestures, the wrong tone,
the wrong hand in my pants.
The summer moved on, page by page.
Mulberries fell and fermented in the grass. The bees,
grown furry and big,
insinuated themselves into the roses.
Under black-flecked leaves the mantises waited,
lethal bits of twig.
I wanted the book to carry me to the Champs-Elysees,
where a grandmother’s stroke cast a Pompeian
shadow of the dead
on the walls the carriage passed; where folly and grief
joined hands in a comic minuet around
the dying woman’s bed.
But the book insisted on South Station, an hour’s train ride
from Providence, where my gentle uncle was dying
of brain cancer. Above
the doors I never managed to pass through
the departure times revolved, clattering reminders of how fear
can triumph over love.
The apples swelled; the branch bent low;
I slept in the sun, while the book read me.
I bit an apple: sour.
Time ran backwards; the present spat up the past.
The book undid me, read and rewrote me.
The fruit burst into flower.
Copyright © 2020 by Jay Wickersham.