I was quite pleased with “Men at the Library” when I first posted it, hot from my fevered brow. But I soon realized that I had made a simple mistake in strategy that weakened the poem. Repeatedly, I talked about the characters as types, in plural, rather than as particular individuals–even abstracting my own presence. “This one” is almost always stronger in a poem than “this sort.” The one, we experience; the sort, we extrapolate. Abstraction is almost always weaker than depiction.
So here is the poem again, revised–and to my ear–much improved.
Men at the Library
The youngest man at the library makes war
with unknown adversaries all across the planet.
Behind the cubicle wall he flexes the iron thews
of his imagination, making mutton of all comers.
The next came a-jog behind a double-wide stroller,
to nursemaid towheads promised a good story.
Sitting cross-legged on the carpet, he murmurs
baritone replies to a steady stream of soprano inquiry.
There is the unemployed man, who emails
resumes like candle lanterns set afloat, and
the discontented man, who grinds his many axes
with reluctant pen pals in elected office.
An older man relaxes behind the paper, happy
to be out of the house, for whatever reason,
and despite the fact that the very same paper
was on his doorstep when he went out.
Saturday in the library, one can be undisturbed
among company, a particular masculine pleasure,
like holding court, but without the nuisance
of issuing orders or hearing pleas for judgment.
Then there is me–a bookish man–basking
in the convivial presence of my peers
(as represented by the long rows of volumes)
who spent their lifetimes scratching at the page.
In time I may become like the eldest, who nods
in the best chair, absorbing an obscure tome
(apparently by mental telepathy)–whose friends
are long buried, whose labor is no longer required.
Even dull company is company, I suppose,
when days go on and on like Tolstoy translations.
Somewhere back among these stacks, no doubt,
is a book–cogent but neglected–upon this very topic.