in the margins of Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings
February 9, 2013 § Leave a comment
Things I have found in books: a Taiwanese passport; a sheaf of notes for an essay on ocular metaphors in George Eliot’s Middlemarch; an ultrasound image of an embryo in utero; a cardiograph printout; $120 in cash; a phone message slip from a Vancouver motel circa 1950 (please call); a letter written to the poet Allen Grossman by his publishers, thanking him for being their author and offering him complementary copies of his book, The Long Schoolroom: Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle.
I bought The Long Schoolroom from the Advanced Book Exchange online, and assume that this was one of the complementary copies offered to Grossman by his publisher, copies he seems to have immediately sold to his local used bookstore. I don’t remember which book the phone message slip came from, only that it was another second-hand book from a local bookshop in Vancouver. The cash was mine, misplaced on a ferry trip to Victoria and then found several years later between pages 193 and 194 of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which I never finished. The other items I found while discharging books as a library assistant at the Woodward Biomedical Library, which might explain their medical provenance. Although oddly enough, the notes on ocular metaphors were my own: years before I had taken a graduate course on the nineteenth century novel, borrowed a book from Woodward on the history of the eye, left the notes inside the medical history, and then found them again several years later, by chance.
And one day at Tanglewood Books, in their old location on Broadway near Granville, I found, inside a Faber and Faber copy of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings — a fern-green copy from the 80s when they used to stipple their covers with tiny “f’s” — not a physical object, but a series of pencilled annotations by another reader. But this reader wasn’t writing the annotations for himself or herself, but for a woman (“Kate”), to whom I assume (s)he planned to give this book of poems as a gift. So as I read through Larkin’s poems for the first time, I also read the unfolding story of the relationship of this reader-annotator and the woman I think (s)he loved.
For example, after “Talking in Bed” (“Talking in bed ought to be easiest/Lying together there goes back so far…”), my annotator has written:
O God I pray that this never happens to you and the man I want you to find some day, so please be careful when you choose. Hat.
And after MCMXIV (“Never such innocence,/Never before or since…”):
Not a happy poem and I am personally not prepared to accept. Hat.
Or after “A Study of Reading Habits”, where the final line has been underlined: “Books are a load of crap”:
Don’t believe this Kate because it all depends on the author and the factors that the reader accepts at the time of reading. Hat.
Why might my annotator be a man? The ego of it, perhaps. (Is this fair? Probably not.) The fact that he signs each somewhat banal pronouncement? The slightly condescending tone: let me teach you about the world, my love, you need protection, this is what I hope for you.
Or perhaps she is a woman, somewhat older, assuming a worldly tone for a younger woman she cares for. The name “Hat” might be short for Harriet. Or, if a man, “Hat” might be a nickname, a last name. The addressee is mute, as is almost always the case in the love poem as well. I know I have created a story for them: perhaps my annotator loved Kate, but was rejected; their friendship continued, and now (s)he acts as confidant, or guardian.
I think the annotator is sincere; but I feel the same uncertainty I often feel reading Larkin — what exactly is Larkin’s attitude towards the place, subject, lover, he describes in any given poem? is he really as coarse as he sometimes presents himself to be? and is he sometimes as tender as I think he is, as in the brilliant opening poem of The Whitsun Weddings, “Here,” and possibly in its concluding one, “An Arundel Tomb”? And perhaps this uncertainty towards the speaker is connected to the unstable relationship between poet and lyric “I” filtered through language, a distance which Larkin plays upon, or hides behind. Perhaps I reveal my own desire for sincerity, for the poet’s fidelity.
At more cynical moments, I think the annotator must be playing a game; a clever student bored in class, making up annotations to amuse herself, making up a story.
When I feel the annotator is sincere, I think of how strange it is to be reading these poems in tandem with my annotator, gauging my own reactions to the poem with Hat’s own; and I begin to like this idea, how Hat’s annotations remind me of the many readers who have come before me and who will come after. Here, in Hat’s pencilled annotations, (s)he leaves some small trace of an encounter with poetry, and perhaps with love.
And if Hat ever ended up giving this annotated volume to Kate, I guess she did respond in a way — I found it, after all, for sale in a used bookstore.
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
I can’t improve the blunt, stark fact of the last line. It is satisfying and beautiful. Hat.
Remember to ask me what I can tell you of my “blackness” experience. Hat.
PS From page 37 onto this page there is little for me to comment on because the underlined line above says it all. Hat.