I have been working on a piece of poetry of which I'm more proud than I usually am. It is of a subject about which I know as intimately as I know the feeling of jacquard silk against my chapel hat pegs: le perverti dans la bibliothèque, or what you might call "the creep in the library."
My inspiration: Herman Blowhole. I have not been able to go to the library for months without Mr. Blowhole leering at me from over his half-frame readers.
Oh, I was on to him immediately. I have met his type before. They lurk in the corners, sloping shoulders behind dusty volumes, what little hair they have glistening with oil under straining amber light. They wait until you reach up for an obscure volume on the top shelf and then they make their move, pushing back their chair with the scrape of heavy wood on cracked tile floor. I hear their footsteps advancing, the leather soles of their well-worn shoes counting out their drumbeat of suspense until they arrive at your side, their hesitancy depicted in their trembling, frail hand as they put their spindly fingers at your disposal.
Well, if there were a monarch of the lonely, a shepherd of life's losers who haunt the parks by day and the dark recesses of the Internet by night, it is Herman Blowhole.
Yesterday, while I was deep in the bowels of the library searching for the missing fourth stanza of the Catullus 51, I heard the tell-tale scrape of the wooden chair leg against the tile floor and within seconds of far too fleeting fate he was by my side, putting his spindly fingers at my disposal. "I think the volume you're looking for is at my table," he said to me, his voice scarcely a whisper over the silence of the turning page. "If you're looking for the reference work on notching arrow shafts."
I told him he must be mistaking me for someone else, because that is not the volume I was looking for nor have ever looked for and indeed didn't anticipate looking for in my lifetime. "My subject is life's hurts, My. Blowhole," I replied, "acceptance of one's fate, submission, receiving what's driven into one by the thrust of hard compulsion, not notching shafts. You must be mistaking me for someone else."
"I doubt it," he said, drawing nearer. "I clearly saw you yesterday with The Spires of Oxford. If that's not about notching shafts, I don't know what is."
I confess, his erudition left me slighty breathless and for a moment his fingers appeared strong and deliberate, like they belonged to the hand of a cabinet maker. I even entertained the idea of asking him to reach me the volume on candle beeswax over the centuries. But I came to my senses quickly after he removed his reading glasses and I saw in his eyes the years he's spent looking over his dinner plate to a seat across the table that sits empty. His companion for too long has been not the idle conversation of a comfortable friend or the white fire of a sizzling lover but the yellowed and dog-eared pages of a forgotten book.
"I appreciate your concern for me, but I prefer to browse these shelves myself," I said, then, inexplicably, I started quoting Sylvia Plath: "I echo to the least footfall/Museum without statues, grand with pillars, porticoes, rotundas."
And Mr. Blowhole, without missing a beat, added, "In my courtyard a fountain leaps and sinks back into itself/Nun-hearted and blind to the world. Marble lilies
exhale their pallor like scent."
For a moment his voice became clear and assertive, like a warrior calling his men to battle over the din of chaos and death. And during that minute Mr. Blowhole assumed a commanding mien, the thin, blue-veined skin near his temples changing before my very eyes to appear rugged and tan. I longed to feel his strong fingers tightly clasped around my hand as I submitted to his will.
But the moment soon passed and he was once again the frail man with the hawk nose and nervous, darting eyes.
"You'll want to read "Secret Love" by Amelia Opie," said Mr. Hardshaft-I mean, Mr. Blowhole. "Absorbed in studious care," he recited-words well known by me, I should add-"my happy eyes may dare/to gaze and dwell unchecked on thee."
It was too much. Verily, it was more than I could handle. I spoke so he could feel my breath against his neck. I spoke so that he might hear my longing. "My throbbing heart too plainly speak," I said, there timid hopeless passion lies," upon which I threw my ams around my man, opening my heart to be his plaything should he be so cruel. And Mr. Powerthrust-I mean, Mr. Blowhole-led me to his table, whereupon he gathered up his books and invited me to tea. And it was then that the words of my poem burst forth like a stallion that will not be reined in:
Your steps, so timid like a nervous mouse,
Echo achingly throughout your house,
As you hesitate to catch the sun,
Lest you bronze your flat, pale bun.
But when you speak those words to me,
and move me off to fantasy,
I know you'll have your way with me
while I lay deep inside this reverie.
O, take me, take me, you artisan of the dictionary,
until I awaken to see the creep in the library.