You enter in the evening, after walking down
Three steps to a miniature courtyard and a door tied open
With a piece of brown twine. The table lamps
Have tassled shades the color of scorched parchment,
Tiny pools of yellowed light beneath them,
So that looking across the room seems like looking
Across a small autumn garden. The proprietor,
Wire-rimmed glasses glinting, nods but doesn’t lift his head
From his reading and the rye bread sandwich
Into which he’s nibbled an almost total moon.
You browse, and while you do, your hands
Grow heavy and old, as if by taking close-packed books
From their shelves you are pulling bricks from a wall
Bound to collapse should you remove too many
And not replace them. What you’re searching for, among
These histories, these poems, these illuminated guides
To the soul, or the soul’s companions . . . these compendiums
Of fossils, stars, speeches, journeys when the world
Was a path through forest or waves against painted eyes
On the bow of a wooden ship plying the Aegean,
Is a single line of calm. This evening, you come close,
Closer than ever before, for it starts raining
Outside among the streetlights, and a tabby cat
Does figure eights around your ankles, the proprietor
Sighs deeply behind you. When you turn, he’s brushing
Specks of pale white brie and crumbs of bread
Carefully from the pages of his open manuscript
Into crumpled wax paper. Without a word
He takes the book you hand him, toting its price and tax
On the smudged back of an envelope, his stubby pencil
Writing small numbers. You pay him what he asks
And walk out into the rain, a black umbrella
Held high above you, the bookshop receding
Until it becomes a dab of flickering light
In the far reaches of Prague, or Budapest, or Rome,
Or what the eye sees when it looks down into
A heavily-varnished painting found behind the stacks
Of books in a closet: dark city at night unknown;
Artist unknown; the light almost there, almost gone;
Rain and leaves and shadows on the cobblestones.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 10, on page 42
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