Poetry, Slice of life

Book Impressions: What Happens Off Stage

Shakespeare was a rascal among playwrights. The master of wit, romance, and innuendo was a hero of public entertainment and is now the dread of high school poetry students everywhere. In days past, Shakespearean plays weren’t fit for respectable society. Seriously, his plays would be rated PG-13 today if the lingo were updated. Imagine the horror of Elizabethan paragons of virtue if they could see Shakespeare’s collections enshrined in bookstores, libraries and schools everywhere!

Found at a summer garage sale, An Art Edition of the Most Popular Dramas of Shakespeare is a hefty tome. The cover is pretty, even though the surface of the spine fell off, and there is a round mark where a $1 sticker was pressed onto the embossed surface. The crumbled spine now serves as a bookmark.

Before you can turn to the title page, you notice a yellowed sheet of paper just beyond the coversheet. The impression of the square paper on the page tells you it has been there for a while. It is a certificate, printed in brown ink with scrolling signatures, that certifies Mr. Herbert Parker of Kalamazoo, Michigan as a member of the Gaskell Literary Club of Chicago, Illinois. It’s all very official. Unfortunately, nothing seems to remain of this literary club. . . at least not on the internet. But you’re sure there is a city record somewhere that has more information about this club Herbert joined.

Herbert must have been quite the reader. Who else would pick up a book like this and register for a fancy literary club on December 18, 1889? You carefully turn the pages, and stop at the inscription, written three days later.

Herbert W. Parker,

                        Kalamazoo, Mich.

Dec, 25, 1889.

            A Merry Christmas,

                        From Your Wife.

A Christmas present! This illustrated book of Shakespearean dramas with its broken spine and gilded pages was a gift to Herbert from his wife. The club membership allowed him to get “any moral book to be obtained through the trade,” at an economical price. At this point, you wonder how literary the literary club was, given that Shakespeare probably can’t be considered moral.

As you flip through the pages of illustrations and columned text, you wonder who Herbert was, and who was his wife? We know nothing about her except she enjoyed fine books and had neat writing. With a bit of research (and some help from Ancestry, the 1910 Census, and MI marriage records) you discover that Herbert was born in Michigan and lived there his whole life. Wedding bells rang for Herbert in 1888, when he married Helen M. Parker (Cowlbeck), age 21 from Missouri. Together, they lived in Kalamazoo where he worked as the vice president at a bank.

On a snowy winter morning in Michigan, Herbert and Helen celebrated their 2nd Christmas together. Maybe they read this book aloud in front of the Christmas tree and giggled at Shakespeare’s witticisms. Maybe their children, Alice and James (who arrived on the scene just a couple years later) read the text for school and studied the lines for a school play. Maybe the Gaskell Literary Club kicked off a new story in the life of the Parkers in 1889.

Poetry, Publishing, Slice of life

Book Impressions: To Fletch from Hettie

Used books are more than collections of beat-up paperbacks and faded texts marching out from musty spines. Used books carry the weight of tearstained pages, notes scribbled in margins, the love of personal inscriptions, and the sunshine of yesterday on their faded covers. Who knows the journey a used book traversed before landing in your hand? This is the question that draws me into bookshops and libraries to search out books with their own unique histories, and I’ve found a few treasures along the way. Some of them contain mysteries that I’ve yet to figure out, but I love pouring over the clues within the pages. So, I give you the first installment of Book Impressions.

A worn book of Robert Browning's Poems.

Most of us are familiar with the English poet, Robert Browning. During the Victorian era, he wrote plays and poems with dramatic flair and married Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was an accomplished poet in her own right. (Talk about a romance filled with poetry!) This particular book is titled, Robert Browning’s Poems and contains selections from his poetical works. It is small, almost smaller than the mass market paperbacks you see in airport gift stores. The cover, a dove grey with silver scrollwork around the edges, is faded beyond recognition, but still soft to the touch. The cover is stained, with camel-colored paint splattered across the front. Someone must have used the book to hold down a paint tarp during a home renovation project. You wonder if anybody got upset about the book damage. Maybe not. Any book collector would tell you this book isn’t worth anything, especially in its current condition. You slowly open the cover and the first two pages fall in your lap. The second one has writing on it. Three separate lines in different handwriting:

A couple of loose pages from a book, with inscriptions.

’96

F.H. Connor.

Fletch
              from

                            Hettie

Hettie’s inscription is gracefully written, simple. Fletch sounds like a nickname of sorts. Perhaps they were close. Now you get into the technical bits. You skipped over the publisher: Donohue, Henneberry & Co. located in Chicago. When was this book published? The author’s note, by the great R.B. himself, is dated May 14, 1872. But the inscription mentioned ’96, and the publisher’s history indicates a print date in the 1890s. The book is dedicated to another famous author, Alfred Tennyson. Makes sense, that these classic poets were pals. According to Browning’s dedication, Tennyson’s friendship was “noble and sincere.”

What follows is 368 pages of Browning’s poetic genius. But turn to page 112. As you read, “And yonder, at foot of the fronting ridge…” your eye catches a bit of blue at the end of the line. Resting where the page meets the cover, there is a tiny, pale blue flower, a little slip of stem peeking from underneath the preserved petals.

An open poetry book, with a small blue flower dried between the pages.

Is it a forget-me-not? It could be. We don’t know who picked the flower and nestled it safely within the pages of Browning’s poetry. Perhaps they wanted to remember line XIV from “By the Fireside.” It could have been a mindless reaction to preserve a pretty flower on a summer day. Or maybe the flower, like the book, was a gift of remembrance.

In this book, worn beyond repair by a poet lost to time, is a flower. So this book speaks about more than just poetry. It tells a story about the wear and tear of life, of painting projects, and wildflowers that grew over a hundred years ago, when Fletch got a book from Hettie.

A close up view of a page of poetry, with a dried blue flower on the page.

Poetry, Slice of life

Songs of a Michigan Spring

It is the hush after the sun goes down. You can still hear the hum of highway traffic in the distance, but under the darkening blanket of the sky, the trees whisper to each other. Lights turn off one by one in the neighborhood, as the rabbits creep out of their dens to forage.

A rotted bench stands underneath towering tree-trunks, beckoning you closer. It’s old and getting cold, but you lie down anyway to stare up at the blue-black expanse as the winking stars slowly emerge. For a moment, the world is turned upside down and you could tumble up to the tops of the trees and into the net of constellations above.

In that moment, you remember the immensity of the world. There is a foretelling of Spring Peepers on the breeze and the scent of crisp melting snow mingling with the musk of mossy earth and fallen leaves that comes before the smoke of midnight bonfires. You breathe in the song of renewal and golden days to come.

Poetry, Slice of life

The Empty Jar

poured out

with bursts of creativity

the condensation of tears

rushing the clatter of small talk

the jar becomes empty

not shattered

not broken or stained

just empty

transparent

it is a good thing

to sit by a window

catching sunshine

to cast rainbows

across silent rooms

until the jar

is filled up again

by whispers of twilight

carried on the breath of kairos

shadows

spread blue velvet

over your skin

under the moon

peering yellow over the horizon

the trees reach up

to caress the golden warmth

that falls in the west

the earth stops spinning

till the crickets sing

and all but the knowing sleep

under a dream of tomorrow

and reflections

of a company of stars