Nicholas Francis’s “Unpacking” [Read the poem here]
First published in Issue #19 of Cha.
Books Twitch Anxiously On Unfamiliar Stands
Nicholas Francis’s poem ‘Unpacking’ put me in mind, not of the many suitcases I have disgorged and refilled, not the countless relocations and itinerancies I have performed between China and London with what one friend calls “your pursued émigré face”, but rather of a tutor I once knew, a now-retired, cigar-smoking German anthropologist who, in some fit of collegial alms, offered me a roomful of books.
“I would like to offer you my books,” he emailed. “And I mean all. The rest will be dumped.”
I had expressed my amazement, just in passing, just for grades, at the size of his library. He seemed to realise on the point of his retirement that they had brought him precisely nothing, and that the transfer might soothe this horrible wound before it opened. “Do remember there are two sets of shelves,” he added, and my trolley squeaked as I wheeled it cross-campus to his room.
I expected to find it empty but for books, gutted and blanched in the bluster of his exfiltration. Instead it was still ticking with movement, a computer monitor casting a gloomy blue across his files and objet d’art. I pushed the door and saw him sitting in this light, on the rug by the far wall.
“What will strike you immediately,” he said sleepily, “is that I’ve given most of the interesting titles away.”
I wheeled in and could smell that he’d been sitting here for some time. I saw our email exchange open on the computer between us.
“The translatable ones,” he said, “those which could mean something to another person, I’ve shed them like particles of skin. I left them on trains, with strangers and friends. You’d be surprised what people will give, or forgive, for a book.”
He spoke, as ever, in measured bursts and long pauses, as though convinced that everything he said should, and somehow would, be subject to record.
“What remains are the kinds of books that will count you, if you’re not careful, among their failures.” He stood stiffly. “But it is a happy and essential curse, I think.”
He moved to the shelves nearest his desk, smiled at me, picked out two between his fingers, separated them into either hand – ‘A Grammar of Motives,’ he read, and ‘The Constant Nymph‘ – and replaced them. “Interactive wallpaper. A flameless conflagration. Consuming nothing.”
His expression was stretched, as if he’d been listening for a long time to an arcane and inelegant joke, undeliverable in the present tense, and was now straining to understand almost everything he saw. He then began a monologue it didn’t seem prudent or appropriate to interrupt.
“These aren’t cult classics,” he said, “or curios that will drift back into print on warm afternoons. They are intractable nothings, obsolete even to their admirers. So old it is not merely uncanny to touch them, it is preposterous. The Sinews of Peace. The Age of Belief. The kind a prison or a charity couldn’t take. The Miscellany of a Poet. Books that depend on dying paradigms, their citations now scattered in some moot semantic ire. They would not be missed by the most pedantic archivist. This is worse than a fear of old clothes, old clocks, because these anxious blocks of ink are the clotted pulse of human action, of long-stale desire. And I want to fall on them, even now, I want to fall on them like Humbert falls on Lolita’s clothes. They are the most anxious words in the world. And none so insecure as the brotherless, the only-children of writers who tried it once and gave up in panic. Cathedral of Ants. Tristram Shandy. The Unpossessed. The Salt Eaters. Anyone can bang out one, Wodehouse said. The real test is three.”
He looked exhausted suddenly, and eased himself back to the floor with a look of surprise, as though the rug had in fact been in pursuit of him. I, now licensed to move, walked behind him towards the skylight.
“Even the names of one-novel authors,” he said, “sounds as though they’re edging out of the window to their deaths. Pedro Paramo, Juan Rulfo, Countee Cullen, Lionel Trilling, Peter Aberard, Cynthia Ozick, Lola Leroy, Ed Luoma…”
I raised my hand and gripped the bar of the skylight.
“Can you hear it? Pocking the street with their consonant elbows and knees. Barbara Stcherbatcheff, Gwendolyn Brooks, Serge Gainsbourg, Henry Brailsford, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Carl Sandburg, Umtaz Shahnawaz, Gogol, Churchill, Whitman, Chekhov, Byron, Proust…”
Reaching up, I felt like a schoolgirl about to show her cleverness by asking the right question. The skylight opened with a crack, and we felt the familiar noise and light of the courtyard.
“This Fiery Night,” he said. “The titles have an ancient unease, don’t they? A pale, squandered longing, rising in the night to type and falling back nervously by dawn. Ship of Fools. The Vagrants. The Young Visitors. Les Faux-Monnayeurs. Jews Without Money. The Insivisble Man, Our Nig and The Eleventh Virgin.”
He spoke the last slowly and sarcastically, as if the words carried hilarious weight.
“Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The Evening Land. People don’t write for acclaim, they write to ease their anxiety. Nothing inspires a writer like the confidence of less talented friends. But once done, each revolution embarrasses the last.”
I looked for some time through the open window, trying to breathe a brief minuet of sounds from the trees on the other side of the courtyard.
“Le Devoir de Violence. The Broom of the War God. A Few Hours in a Far-Off Age—”
I hardly noticed as he broke off, recalling something, and reached into his pocket to draw out a cigarette. I touched my trolley and moved towards the door.
“How I envy the novelist, Plath said,” he said. “The door of the novel, like the door of the poem, also shuts. But not so fast, nor with such manic, unanswerable finality. And there is an increasing market for mental hospital stuff.”
Nicholas Francis is an Anglo-Welsh writer based in Tokyo. His work is interested in exploring the borders between the modern and the pastoral, the formal and the formless. He has been published in a number of poetry journals including The Delinquent, Obsessed with Pipework, Parthian’s Nu Anthology and Cardiff-based Square. He is currently working on a first collection as well as translating a number of Japanese poets into English.