Ode to an Encyclopedia
By James Arthur
O hefty hardcover on the built-in shelf in my parents’ living
O authority stamped on linen paper, molted from your dust
Questing Beast of blue and gold, you were my companion
on beige afternoons that came slanting through the curtains
behind the rough upholstered chair. You knew how to trim a
and how the hornet builds a hive. You had a topographical map
of the mountain ranges on the far side of the moon
and could name the man who shot down the man
who murdered Jesse James. At forty, I tell myself
that boyhood was all enchantment: hanging around the railway,
getting plastered on cartoons; I see my best friend’s father
marinating in a lawn chair, smiling benignly at his son and me
from above a gin and tonic, or sitting astride his roof
with carpentry nails and hammer, going at some problem
that kept resisting all his mending. O my tome, my paper
my narrative without an ending, you had a diagram of a cow
broken down into the major cuts of beef, and an image
of the Trevi Fountain. The boarding house,
the church on the corner: all that stuff is gone.
In winter in Toronto, people say, a man goes outside
and shovels snow mostly so that his neighbors know
just how much snow he is displacing. I’m writing this
in Baltimore. For such a long time, the boy wants
to grow up and be at large, but posture becomes bearing;
bearing becomes shape. A man can make a choice
between two countries, believing all the while
that he will never have to choose.
About This Poem
When discussing this poem, poet James Arthur said, “It’s now almost unimaginable to me that for the first half of my life, I had no access to the Internet. What I did have is my parents’ hardbound, single-volume encyclopedia: a book that seemed to contain a scrap of information on almost every subject. For me ‘Ode to an Encyclopedia’ is about the openness of the open field; when we’re children, we can still believe that we’ll have time to go everywhere, see everything, and do it all.” I can remember the set of blue World Book Encyclopedias my parents had. We used them for many school projects, but what I temper most is that they spawned my love of knowledge. I’ll be turning 38 at the end of this month, so just like Arthur, the first half of my life I had no access to the Internet and it seemed like all the knowledge in the world were contained in those blue volumes. Now if something interests me and I want to know more, I Google it, but back then, I’d pulled down the appropriate encyclopedia and begin flipping through. The problem was, there were always things I’d see on the way to finding my main article that had drawn me to the books. With those other articles, I’d hold its place with a finger and continue on. By the time I had turned to the article I wanted, I usually had four or five fingers holding different things I wanted to read about next. One or more of them would lead me to putti that volume back up and getting down another and the process began again. Now with the Internet it is so much easier because you just right clicks, and open up a new tab. There’s an almost infinite number of tabs you can open though, but I only had so many fingers. I will get immersed in article after article, each one taking me to a new piece of knowledge.
James Arthur is the author of Charms Against Lightning (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). He teaches at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore, Maryland.