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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 8, Number 4, December 2014

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Gary LeBel
Cumming, Georgia, USA


Papyri in Illinois

She strikes me as a bit crazy at first, flitting about like the squirrels that are scurrying over the limbs of her tall, serious oaks: she greets us as if she hadn't had a visitor in a decade while showing us inside to look at her 'treasures.' We'd followed her handwritten signs announcing a 'Barn Sale' for you couldn't miss them along the last few hundred yards or so before reaching her modest stick-built house and the barn that dwarfs it, its wide doors slid invitingly open. Like an overflowing brook, in less than a minute we learn that she's divorced, has survived cancer, wears a reddish-brown wig that hints at chemotherapy, and that she's an avid reader who's given her best volumes away—most of them once her father's—to the local library that's 'starving for classics' as is most any small American town where you'd find a string of bars and churches to one under-funded Temple of Learning.

It must be through
the wide chinks between the boards
that the past slips out now and then
for the meadow that islands it
is spread with flowers

Inside, you find everything from tractor parts to sun dresses to skinny fifties ties; there's tarnished silverware and derelict vacuum cleaners, old lace curtains with thin brass rods, forty year-old magazines arranged in row after dusty row on card tables in a more or less obedient chaos, the detritus of living.

"Do you have any books left?" I ask her. "A few. Over there," she says pointing. Stacked in two cardboard boxes I find old leather-bound hymnals and odd little tomes in turn-of-the-century type, mold-spotted, brittle and yellowed, with titles like What Every Bride Should Know clasped with a red ribbon to What Every Groom Should Know, and there's a glossy oil company's guide to Saudi Arabia devoid of a single woman's face. And wedged in among these, there's a small thin volume entitled Come Swiftly to Your Love. My brain elbows the forgetful tenant that shares its house: C'mon, you've heard of this: think, man, think!

Still at a loss, I open it to the delight of finding Ezra Pound: they are his translations after ancient Egyptian love poems. I'd read some of them in anthologies years back and admired them. The little hardback had been brought out by Hallmark of all publishers, and was adorned with dated but colorful sixties illustrations by Tom di Grazia, a gem.

For bibliophiles, this is the reward for ranging through smelly thrift shops and flea markets and numberless others' handprints, all to find yet another of the world's great voices poured into a few ounces of paper, hardboard, linen and type. I could probably have found it easily online, but that method lacks a journey, as each new discovery warms you with the kind of excitement Averroës must have felt when he unfurled, ever-so-gently, some newly-discovered scroll to translate and study and pass on to us.

"What do you want for it?" I say, having obviously surrendered, the worst mistake you can make while bargaining. "Ten, but I'll take three, from you," she says with a wink.

Driving on towards Missouri afterwards, I wondered about its provenance, about the ardor of the buyer and, if it had one, its effects on the receiver, for books hold as many lives within them as words.

. . . after swimming all day
                    how the naiad has woven dawn into dusk
            leaving a sweet scent of lake
in your long auburn hair
            raining down through a kiss . . .

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