Ode to an Encyclopedia
by James Arthur
O hefty hardcover on the built-in shelf in my parents’ living room,
O authority stamped on linen paper, molted from your dust jacket,
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 sail
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 brother,
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.
Copyright © 2015 by James Arthur.
PHOTO: Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy, by Aza Zelok, used by permission.
NOTE: The Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy, is the result of a contest organized in 1730 by Pope Clement XII. Nicola Salvi initially lost to Alessandro Galilei — but after an outcry in Rome over someone from Florence winning the contest, Salvi was awarded the commission. Work began in 1732 and was completed in 1752 by Giuseppe Pannini and several others. At 86 feet high and 161.3 feet wide, it is the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous fountains in the world. The Trevi Fountain has been featured in notable films, including Roman Holiday (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), and La Dolce Vita (1960).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Arthur was born in Connecticut and grew up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of the poetry collection The Suicide’s Son (Véhicule Press 2019) and Charms Against Lightning (Copper Canyon Press 2012). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New York Review of Books, and The London Review of Books. He has received the Amy Lowell Traveling Poetry Scholarship, a Hodder Fellowship, a Stegner Fellowship, a Discovery/The Nation Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship to Northern Ireland, and a visiting fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Visit him at jamesarthurpoetry.com.