Lifesaving Poems: Czeslaw Milosz’s ‘And Yet the Books’

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And Yet the Books

 

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,

That appeared once, still wet

As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,

And, touched, coddled, began to live

In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,

Tribes on the march, planets in motion.

“We are,” they said, even as their pages

Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame

Licked away their letters. So much more durable

Than we are, whose frail warmth

Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.

I imagine the earth when I am no more:

Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,

Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.

Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,

Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

Berkeley, 1986

Czeslaw Milosz

 

One year I decided that I would decorate one of my teaching rooms with my collection of Poems on the Underground posters that I had kept rolled up in a drawer for years.

I had noticed that the gap between the top of the display boards and the ceiling was exactly the same width of the posters. My classroom became one long tube carriage.

The poster of ‘And Yet the Books’ had pride of place, just to the left of the whiteboard, in the eye-line of everyone who sat in the room.

After a year or so the posters began to peel off the walls. I got a chair and went round the room poster by poster applying first extra Blu-tack and then double-backed Sellotape to adhere them to the walls. Another year went by. The posters continued to peel.

I did one more round of this a year later.

Then it struck me.

A teacher of literature, language and literacy, I had not actually read ‘And Yet the Books’.

By this time I had given up on the project. No amount of extra Blu-tack and double-backed Sellotape was going to keep them up there. Not on these walls anyway. I decided to take them down.

I had spent a lot of time and energy prettifying my teaching room, with implied messages about art, poetry and living what Seamus Heaney calls the individuated life, without paying attention to what the poem had to say.

I got out my chair, moving round the room poster by poster, peeling each one off the impossible walls. I began with the poster to the left of ‘And Yet the Books’, so that it would be the last one to come down.

It was a long time before I finally faced down the poem in front of me. There was a fly. Sunlight. Dust.

Then I read the poem out loud, into the silence of that empty education building, and took the poster down, defeated and enlarged and smiling.

 

4 comments

  1. Mandy_S

    A wonderful poem, Anthony, and the last line makes my jaw drop open. Your story reminds me of when I was poet in residence at Leeds General Infirmary. We started a ‘poems in the lift’ series. I blu-tacked, sellotaped and gaffer taped short poems written by the hospital staff to the lift walls. But could we get them to stay up? No. They were leant on, torn, trodden underfoot, And if they managed to make it through the day, the cleaners took them down and chucked them away in the evening. But hopefully one or two people still got to read them! Whatever the moral of the story was, your piece touches on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anthony Wilson

      I love this story Mandy! There is a real moral force to it, as you rightly say. Poems do have a habit of getting through the cracks, like grass through concrete. As ever with thanks, Anthony

      Like

  2. jazzcookie

    A wonderful poem and story to go with it, Anthony. I don’t think there will be many poems written about e-readers or stories of decorating classrooms with them. (I’ve been wrong before.) Cheers, Molly

    Like

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