Dear Mr Brasch
On Monday last I visited your library at the Special Collections section of the Otago University Library. I may not be telling you anything you didn’t know already, but I thought I should say that those footsteps, those probing fingers, and that scratching pencil noise were all me.
When the librarian asked why I would want to come and visit these books as if they were people, or this collection, as if it were you; because the books in your Library are just books and most — or perhaps all of them — are available in other places, I produced only a sort of mumble about ‘instinct’. I am glad that I didn’t have to explain my visit to you in person, because we don’t know each other and it would have been awkward. I would probably have done more mumbling about ‘the land and the people’ or our shared Dunedin heritage and that probably wouldn’t have helped. After all, your Dunedin and mine were very different.
All I could say to the Librarian, in answer to his very reasonable question, was ‘I just want to see these books in the physical context of the collection. Not 100% rational.’ In reply he sent me this long thin message, which I read as both a signal flag that the channel was clear for me to proceed and a bright fluttering ensign of the miracle and wonder of libraries.
I would like to say right away that I am not reading your books or your poems to guess your thoughts or put words in your mouth as I once did with Harry Houdini. I am older now, and sometimes I would rather listen than speak. And you, if you will forgive me saying, do not have that sweaty East European warmth that Houdini has, either. I have a feeling in my waters that no matter how often I read your poems, we will remain strangers. However, just this once, I will presume to say that I think you might have been happy with this man’s considered and, at the same time, welcoming approach to your books.
With the way opened, I headed into your Library with my little notebook and my pencil. I wasn’t nervous exactly, but nor was I relaxed. I reminded myself to be polite and careful and listen to all the instructions, as I would have reminded a child about her manners before visiting an elderly relative. And I was conscious of trying to be alert.
I didn’t have a plan in mind so I decided I would browse. I wouldn’t get anything out to read yet, but I would just try to take in the ‘feeling’ of the collection. I started at the front, the part nearest where the librarians work. Straight away I noticed that this Library of yours looks quite modest and manageable in a University Library, but is a huge number of books to have in a house. No house I have ever lived in contained this many books, or physically could, contain this many books.
Then I noticed that your collection goes everywhere. It goes to Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe, Australia, England, France, Italy and Germany. It interests itself in the recent and distant past. It also goes everywhere in terms of topics. You have books to answer questions on politics, aesthetics, philosophy, sexuality and all the great religions of the world. The first book to catch my eye was small, has a soft cover and was published in 1960. It is about 110,000 refugees, mostly from the Eastern Block, who have been in camps in Austria, Italy and Greece for fifteen years, dying slowly of starvation and tuberculosis and despair. Some of them are children. Some were probably Nazi supporters, and some are mad, but no-one cares. Mostly they have been turned down by every country except the one where they are stuck, and countries are not obliged to say why. This book, with its pencil and ink drawings of the camps, could be written again today.
Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad are in your Library too. Proust is here. Tolstoy is here. The Baal Shem Tov is here. The Kama Sutra is here. Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Wealth of Nations, Bullshit and Jellybeans and Station Life in New Zealand are here. Reuel Anson Lochore’s From Europe to New Zealand is here. Nga Moteatea, Parts I and II, collected by A.T. Ngata, are here. And everywhere, there are families of books. That tells me that if you decided to read about the Russians, you could read the novels themselves and read about the novels, in whichever order pleased you. You could make circles from one to the other and back again.
By the time I was browsing the ‘back’ of the second shelf, I was feeling my time in the Library moving very quickly, even though objectively, only half an hour had gone by. If I saw a book that particularly interested me, I would slide the book out, prop it up for a minute and take its picture. Sometimes it was a book I was surprised to see, or a book with a particularly nervy shade of green on the cover, or a title that called out to me in some way. Surrounded by so much knowledge, I felt a bit frantic and also very rich and happy. Much later in the day, once I was back at Carey’s Bay, looking down at the dredge working in the channel as it has done for a hundred and fifty years, I realised that in the ‘front’ of the second shelf I had also seen Martin Buber’s translation of the stories of the Baal Shem Tov. I had tried unsuccessfully to buy this book in 2010. An encounter with that one book would be worth a Jetstar fare to Dunedin and several days away from my usual occupations.
And then, at 9.15 am, in the movement from the second shelf to the third, I was washed over by a feeling of shame. I felt I was fossicking, with unbridled enthusiasm, in your private… something. I wasn’t in your underwear drawer, because what I was seeing was books, and books are inherently public. I wasn’t in a wardrobe with a secret door leading to a different country because the doors led to every country; and it wasn’t a room full of your outer clothes, because there was no smell of you, or of mothballs. And I wasn’t in your diary, where your hopes or fears might be written in small neat letters.
I was, I decided, in your brain, the structure within which your thoughts and feelings were made possible. A brain is an object with functions. It doesn’t feel pain. These ideas helped with the shame.
I would have liked, then, to ask you whether you imagined such uses as mine when you left your library of books to the Otago University Library. But, in the absence of your reply, all I can do is I apologise if I am wrong about where I was fossicking, or if it would cause you pain for me to do more of that probing.
At 9.48 I moved, without any conscious decision, from browsing the Library in order to get to know the Library, to receiving psychic suggestions from the library about poems I might write. The most fevered scratchings of the pencil happened as I made notes of words or phrases or forms for later use. Saltwater, blue sky, shining, flow, evening breeze, mist, hollow sound, whirlwind, butterfly, abundance, running south, empty cockle shells, going now, foam, bubbles, bitter, stingray, and dream, for example.
I haven’t mentioned your poetry books. This is obviously a huge focus of your Library. I would like to visit your Library for two days, then spend two weeks writing in response to what I found. I would like to do this about ten times, ten being the largest possible number I can imagine, given that I live two aeroplane hops away from Dunedin. On some of these visits, your books of poetry — and your books about poetry — will be my focus too.
Thank you for having me. That’s what I really want to say.
P.S. Did you ever go to Hoffman’s Pharmacy in Princes Street? Maybe as a child, if you had a cough? If you did, you might have seen my grandfather. I’m thinking hard here, but I can’t think of any place in his house where there were books.