Among the Chou,
who ruled in China after the Shang and before the Ch’in,
there were an Accomplished King and a Martial King:
who came out of the land of Wei
in the far west.
They gave new laws.
But most of all there was among them
a marvelous exaggerated respect
for books and bronzes.
Scholars could do anything they liked!
And they carried everywhere tablets and brushes
suspended at the waistband
so they could write about it–
write down everything–
gossip—dirty jokes–grocery prices!
They were so proud of being able to say things
with their fingers! Oh, it was new!
And a serious consequential joy,
saying it ceremoniously,
saying it at all! With holy black calligraphy!
They loved writing so much
they were buried with their books.
One king had himself interred with twenty
cartloads of classics on bamboo slivers.
That was a funeral fit
to make being buried worth thinking about!
I had always thought of being shot out of a cannon
into the mountains,
But no! This is the way I shall have it.
I’m resolved that if worst comes to worst
and I have to die,
well, I will insist on being buried with my books.
Now, first of all—in a rough cedar box
lined with broadsides, and funny poems.
Ugh! Spare me your bassinet linings
of pink artificial silk.
Spend the money on a good workable lamp.
If I should wake up, let me spend
the time reading.
Let my head lie on Sake,
let Yeats and Whitman and Cervantes,
Mark Twain and Chaucer, my pockmarked
pencil-scratched edition—lie somewhere about my fingers.
Emily Dickinson I shall have cast in bronze cartouches
to lie on my tongue. Put Hopkins on my chest.
He won’t be heavy, he floats like hydrogen.
Thesaurus, wretched book!
Put that over my eyes.
Shakespeare, I will be all new-dressed
in your blue Yale edition.
If there should be room, throw in Su Tung Po,
Tu Fu, Dante, Joyce, and of course Basho and Issa.
That way I shall never get restless.
I shall never be tempted to come back
and twine about the chimney pots
of the still alive, jealous and
trying to make them uncomfortable.
Oh, I’ll be quite happy, thank you,
for as long as you like.
What’s best, when someday
they dig me up for my bronzes
to put my bones on exhibition
in a brightly lighted museum case,
I shall have come home
to a theatrical way of thinking,
and lie among minds moving about
in a place of learning and repose.
© Andrew Glaze, from the book REALITY STREET , 1991
“Book Burial” is a poem from my father’s “Asian Period”. It was written around the same time as “The Trash Dragon of Shensi”, and “To A Little Han Horse”.
My father came from a family of book lovers and he never read fewer than three books at a time. His side table in the living room always housed a pile of the ones he was working his way through. In addition, one was always reserved for bedtime reading and two others sat at various spots in our apartment. A fourth consisted of one he read to my stepmother in the evening (they gradually worked their way through the entire series of “Jeeves The Butler” books). And while I still lived at home, a fifth involved “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy”, which he read to me over the course of my High School years. He successfully instilled a love of books in both my brother and myself.
His tastes varied from poetry to plays, murder mysteries, political topics, and everything in between. At one point he read The Double Helix, followed by my stepmom, followed by me. Then we all read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. One of the stand outs for me was Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. My stepmom read it after my father. I was next in line. In 2007, I was pleased when I managed to continue the cycle. My daughter came home from school one day with instructions to “Read a detective novel” as homework. I promptly presented her with The Daughter of Time. If you’ve never read it, it’s about a modern day bedridden detective who becomes obsessed with figuring out the truth about King Richard the Third. I figured she’d get a murder mystery, and an English history lesson, all conveniently rolled into one story!
Near the end of his life my father handed me a biography of John Adams by John Ferling saying, “This is one of the better written novels I’ve read recently”. Knowing that this was high praise indeed, I brought the book home with me. He’d always been picky.
All of the books listed in “Book Burial” graced the bookshelves of our Manhattan apartment and later residences. As a teenager, I remember reading some of them on lazy Sunday afternoons. We really did have the entire blue jacketed Yale series of Shakespeare. A complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories sat nearby. One shelf held the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. My mother told me that, as a baby, I would pull books off of their lower shelves and draw in them with crayon. My partner in crime was a large white rabbit named “Bunny” who would follow and nibble the edges when I moved on to the next book. We still had those books too!
The year before he died I personally went through his book collection together with him and we narrowed it down considerably. Whitman and Dickinson remained on the shelves, along with Homer, Cervantes, and all of the other authors mentioned in the poem.
Since his passing, I’ve discovered that he was often in the habit of making marks or comments in the margins of books whenever there was something he particularly liked,…or disliked. Sometimes he would argue with the content, or the author. Humorously, this was even true for spare copies of his own poetry books. Ever the editor, he would cross out entire lines to make his already “finished” poems even tighter.
In the end, since he’d long before made up his mind that he was donating his body to medical research when he died, an Asian style burial along with his books was not in the cards. In theory, we could have set up a sacrificial pyre, burnt his favorites to a crisp and mixed the remnants with his ashes, but he probably would have looked at that as a huge waste of perfectly good books. We decided that, given a choice, he’d have said, “Good gracious, no, please donate them somewhere!” And so that’s exactly what we did.
Andrew Glaze in Miami, 1991. The table beside his favorite chair is covered with a typical pile of books. Photo property of the Andrew Glaze Estate.