Monday, February 6, 2012

The Reading Room

The insides of the Berkeley Art Museum gift shop have been moved several feet and are now in the lobby. They are by the ticket takers, surrounded by a fence that says "no bags or backpacks beyond this point." A temporary displacement. The gift shop, the real one, has a new sign that says "The Reading Room," and suggests that you browse the books inside—poetry and experimental fiction—with the understanding that you will bring one back to replace the one you take. "We look forward to seeing how the character of the works on the shelves evolves over the course of the project!…guided and inspired by Ramsay Bell Breslin and Lyn Hejinian."

I enter the old space that seemingly wears the new clothes. The lighting is similar: dim overall, with gooseneck-lamplight on the books that makes the colors glow. The carpet erases my footfalls: I move stealthily around the small room, alone. Two voices recite poetry from hidden speakers. Two modern overstuffed chairs and one swivel chair are the only furniture aside from the full bookshelves that line the walls. With a tilted head, I read every title. There are many repeats.

I recognize names: Lyn Hejinian, Kelsey Street Press, Kate Delos, Dale Going, Rena Rossenwasser, Bill Berkson, and Steve Benson (I first knew him as one of my managers at Pegasus Books, later found out he was a poet. Coincidentally, Pegasus is participating in World Book Night, a giveaway, on April 23. More details are here.) I have so many books at home—what book do I want and what book would I trade for it? I've been trying to rein in my book acquisitions. Then I see the dark gray spine and title Poetical Dictionary (Abridged) by Lohren Green. I know nothing about this book, but I have an inkling and I want to find out if I am right.

This book makes me happy. Each word has a poem below it, composed of real dictionary definitions, the rest made up, artful. I like how these definitions deepen the meaning of the words by their visual examples. Who cannot be delighted by the poem "acrobatics?" An excerpt:

acrobatics—dance on peaks, striking stances…
1. an exercise in what one already knows
about the swing of rings, acting out
a practiced feeling for
just the right degree of composure
there atop the throbbing rope, with
toes gripping twine-rugged texture…

I've seen artist-writers use the dictionary for inspiration before, but not in this poetic form. In the Table of Contents we see that "A" has four entries: acrobatics, affect, affect, atmosphere. It is both bold and humorous having two poems for affect, I think. I'll take it. And I promise to bring one back to replace it. But I'm not going to sit here and read; it feels too much like a waiting room. 

The Reading Room project continues through June 17, 2012.

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