The Hearth of my Books

Since the World War I have sat before the hearth
of my books. From an infant to an old man
I have had warmth and a sheet of flickering light.
I would turn the pages of Fattypuffs and Thinifers
and chortle at the thin fish, the fat arm-chairs,
and still my own crayoned splodge of a drawing
stays at the front. On my fifth birthday
for the first time I read a book in a day,
The Good Housekeeping Book of Fairy Stories.
Later I liked to spend the day in a tree
reading high up. Once, aged about ten,
I looked and looked for a picture that was not there.
I had seen it – a ship – it’s all I remember now,
apart from a crazed riffling of wordy pages.
Where had it gone? Years later I came to know
I had made it up. I belonged to my books.
As a young man whenever I shifted digs
I sat up half the night with half-packed boxes,
meeting old favourites. They have peopled my mind,
Eliot’s poems, Beckett’s plays, Nevil Shute’s stories,
Willans and Searle, Sellar and Yeatman, le Carré thrillers. . .
always a throng of friends came out of hiding
to see me safe on my way. There is a road
shimmering with colour, with worn, experienced figures,
there to pass the time of day with me,
if I should care to turn aside a moment.
Some tall, some short, some thin, not a few fat,
some fresh on the scene, but in the main old stagers,
veterans of the way. How I have haunted
second-hand shops and stalls for new recruits
to the gang! Once a tetralogy
by Ford Madox Ford took me years to pick up,
each slight Penguin after an age appearing
in the wrong order and so wrong-read: the four
finally at my side. Ah but they left,
in a great landslip nearly all of them went,
five thousand: and I kept a hundred or two,
as I packed up to be a poet abroad.
All the rest slid off to a charity bookshop.
I kept enough to fill a set of shelves
that I had rescued from a butcher’s shop.
Slung on the pavement, destined for the dump,
with a shrug and a laugh the great shelves soon were mine –
“If you can carry them off!” I carried them off,
back home, and all day in the garden I lathered
to force the gross hooks out and get the grease off.
They lay, ready for paint. No sealant layer –
I let the cherry red go into the wood
as into my arm. It is not only books:
all my bookshelves are a part of my life.
The cherry red ones were ditched before I left,
but others came, simply moved in with me
as if by right, wherever I set up house.
I sat in a long sitting-room in the Tropics,
and books flew in and perched on the walls like crows.
All came back home with me. And thousands now
are boxed up in a garage; and thousands more
on new shelves line a new long room. Words, words. . .
the page and cover, colour, texture, smell,
the telling name and title on the spine –
how much of myself is here! Now in the shadows
as day begins to draw to a close, I linger
more and more at a great flame in the sky
before it sets.

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