The Sweet Revenge of Finding My Ex-Boyfriend’s Poetry at a Used Bookstore
His book found its way to me after he disappeared
Unexpected items I’ve found in used bookstores: a sales receipt for chocolate pudding and cigarettes stuck at precisely the midway point of Eat, Pray, Love. A neatly rolled joint, still pungent, on the Russia shelf. A nest of baby mice in a gnawed-out Lonely Planet Guide to Seattle. Most recently: my former boyfriend’s book of poems.
I knew this book existed. More than ten years ago, my former boyfriend included me on a massive celebratory group email blast about winning an important first book prize that meant publication and acclaim. This email was one of only a handful I received from him since we broke up. Because we’d been together through his MFA days, his pre-tenure-track days, his days of crafting rookie verse on a wheezing computer with a faulty mouse at a desk makeshifted from an old door we’d found at a yard sale, I thought maybe he would send me a copy of his book when it came out. He didn’t. For a while I considered buying it, but couldn’t decide whether that would be big-hearted and supportive or stalkerish and wound-probing, so I didn’t.
But in one of the last used bookstores in a college town just north of Chicago, his book found its way to me entirely by chance. It wasn’t on the poetry shelves with all the castoff classroom copies of Whitman and Eliot. If it had been, I would never have seen it because its spine was half as thick as my index finger, his name too small for anyone under forty to read without glasses. I’d crouched under a table to look in a forlorn plastic bin that contained some books my sons like — a series about a treehouse that conveys two annoyingly earnest children back in time to learn valuable lessons about the past. I was flipping through these when I came upon the book written by the man I loved throughout my twenties. It was already in my hands when I saw what it was and who wrote it.
Adrenaline went to urgent, terrible work on me. It’s embarrassing to list my symptoms because they sound so Victorian: trembling hands, rattling heart, clenching stomach, dizziness. The same symptoms I manifested after he dumped me. I stood shakily, paid four dollars for the book, and hurried it like contraband to the nearest coffee shop where I didn’t so much read it as ransack it for glimpses of the poet. Our breakup had been more amputation than parting. The day he ended our fitful, on-and-off seven-year relationship, he drove away into a spitting spring rain and I never saw him again. For months afterward, every time I sighted a red Toyota I thought he had returned to me, but he didn’t. He simply ceased to be in my life so I began the process of unknowing him.
It’s embarrassing to list my symptoms because they sound so Victorian: trembling hands, rattling heart, clenching stomach, dizziness. The same symptoms I manifested after he dumped me.
For a year after he left, I could remember the texture of his hands right down to the slim creases of roughness where his fingers joined his palms. For three years I was able to summon up the wool and cider smell of him. For five years I could recall the sound of his voice. By the time I found his book, all of that was long gone.
Now there he was on the page. For the first time since he drove away, I had access to him. Amid the noise of the coffee shop, I studied his book in a state of intellectual and emotional hunger for the man whose absence I’d learned to live with. That absence no longer throbbed with the aching energy of a phantom limb, but it hadn’t entirely ceased to matter, and I read to fill that void. I was greedy to know something of him again. He is not a confessional or even particularly autobiographical poet, so there wasn’t much to glean in the way of personal details, and yet to read him was to be with him again. His cast of mind, the rhythms of his thinking, were still as familiar to me as my own.
But then again: maybe they weren’t. Maybe the sense of intellectual intimacy — that feeling of standing together and viewing the world through a shared window — is simply the trickster-ish gift of good poetry. Maybe I didn’t know him any better than any other reader. I didn’t like thinking of myself as one of his readers. I wondered how long he’d remembered my hands, my scent, my voice. Certainly there was no hint of me in the book. I’d been easy to erase.
Maybe I didn’t know him any better than any other reader. I didn’t like thinking of myself as one of his readers.
As I was thinking about this, I saw the book was inscribed to a person I didn’t know. For all your kindness, it said. Below that he’d signed his name.
I could have gotten sentimental or weird at that point. After all, as he’d signed this book he’d placed his wrist against the sheet of paper I was now touching. But instead I thought, whoever he gave this book to — this nominally kind person — dumped it. I saw that it was unloved. Unread. The cover was smooth, the binding tight, the pages crackling and white. If an Amazon third-party bookseller had listed it, they would have characterized it as Like New. It ended up in a plastic bin. And this, I admit, gave me pleasure.
Rooting against poetry is like rooting against the Detroit Lions, or the polar ice caps, or print journalism or, for that matter, used bookstores. It’s an exquisitely petty meanness against the already-struggling. But is it wrong to root against a specific poet for personal reasons? I know it’s not high-minded or generous, but is it really so wrong?
Rooting against poetry is like rooting against the Detroit Lions, or the polar ice caps, or print journalism or, for that matter, used bookstores.
Although I’m a devoted reader, I confess I’ve committed outrages against books. When I was seven I stuck globs of spearmint gum throughout the final installment of the Little House on the Prairie series because I felt betrayed by the adult Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was too smitten with her husband and baby, all mischief and adventure cleanly scrubbed out of her. In college I wrote snarky literary-critical remarks throughout The Collected Plays of Bertolt Brecht v. 1 in an unkind spirit. Much more recently I tossed a wildly popular British thriller sidelong out the second-floor window of a bed and breakfast because it was so bad and the plot didn’t even make sense, but also — mostly — to make my husband laugh, which it did.
Leaving the coffee shop, I took my former boyfriend’s slender, award-winning volume of poetry by my thumb and forefinger and whipped it into the nearest garbage can. Not the recycling, the real garbage — the stuff that goes into a landfill and poisons the groundwater. This may be the most openly transgressive impulse I’ve ever acted on, this quick flaring bit of violence against love and literature, both so hard to create and sustain. Possibly it was the most unkind thing I ever did to the poet. For all your kindness. I’d thought I was kind to him when we were together because I ceded myself to him almost completely. I followed him — twice — to places where I knew no one but him; I took a job working directly under him in a small academic setting where he eclipsed me professionally; I tried rather pathetically, and not very successfully, to cultivate his mother as an ally. I let my identity bleed into his. I understand now that is doing a young man no kindness at all. Fragile, overwrought, and exhausting, I depleted him so fully he felt he had to make a bold and permanent escape. That shames me deeply, even now. But I don’t believe I was truly unkind to him until I dumped his work in the trash.
As the book thumped against the bottom of the can, I felt my body go live with a surge of power and victory. I felt avenged, like I’d righted an ancient wrong. As soon as I’d walked four blocks, though, I was overcome not only with literary and moral guilt, but also with grief. My access was gone. I’d lost him again. I missed him frantically, horribly. If all I could have of him were stanzas and line breaks, I would take those scraps. I would reread and reread and reread. I considered, for a crazed moment, running back and reaching into the garbage to reclaim the book. I imagined how I would lean way, way down to grasp it there at the bottom. I would stand on my tiptoes, inverted, and my hair would fall into the can as I inhaled the stink.
I waited. I breathed. I didn’t go back for the book. I made myself go home without it.