A Gift Amiss

. . . but as he gan byholde,
Ful sodeynly his herte gan to colde


Edward Gorey’s cover

Thus Troilus’s reaction upon seeing the brooch he had given to his beloved Cressida hidden within the folds of a cloak, which, a spoil of war, has been ripped from the Greek warrior Diomede. Cressida’s betrayal, the denial of which Troilus excels at, is confirmed by the fact that the brooch is encountered not where or when expected. Cressida has given the proof and reminder of Troilus’s love to another. She has “regifted” it, and in doing so left evidence of her crime against Troilus’s love.

For the poet, nothing makes the “herte” full suddenly “gan to colde” than encountering a warmly signed copy of one’s own book not where or when expected, in a used bookstore, or perhaps even on the shelves of someone other than the dedicatee. It can feel like a betrayal, nothing on the scale of Cressida’s, but wounding nonetheless. But is selling or discarding a signed book tantamount to a betrayal? After all, there are many reasons for getting rid of books: a move to smaller quarters, the need for money, a sudden desire to purge oneself of worldly goods, etc. Hopefully “intention to wound the author” is rarely a motivating factor. Unless, that is, one is tossing out books in a fit of anger after breaking with a friend or lover. If not a betrayal, exactly, there is nevertheless an unkindness behind this particular facet of literary housekeeping, whatever the motivation behind it.

Of course, there is a world of difference between books signed quickly to strangers after a reading, and books signed with great ceremony and care to dear friends, cherished contemporaries, and poets you admire. When my first book, Imagination Verses, came out, no amount of practicing my signature with different style “Js” and Ms” in Junior High helped when it came to the protocol of signing my own book. How does a poet learn such things? I once horrified Steve by refusing to sign the copy I had given to Jacques Darras on the grounds that he had not read it. How was I to know he would like and keep the book? “I will sign it next time we meet,” I said. A gesture of insurance I suppose, which Darras, luckily, was charmed by.

In my quest to understand the art of signing books I observed that some poets crossed out their printed name and signed beneath it, while others quoted a line from one of the book’s poems above their signature, as if that line had special meaning for that particular reader. I noticed that Peter Gizzi, always savvy about bibliophile culture and literary value, signed his books in the faintest pencil. I assumed it was to up their value. But was it also a loophole for those who might want to erase the dedication if they sold the book? Given that signed books yield more money, the sole purpose of such a thoughtful erasure would be to protect the poet. More recently a poet told me that, if he must sell a book that had been dedicated to him, he excises the inscribed page with an X-acto knife, this way, no one need know or be wounded. Few are so careful.

In the nineties rumor had it there was a bookstore in Western Mass or Connecticut where well-known area poets sold off all their “gifted” books. Younger writers, looking to build a library, made a pilgrimage there to buy the cast offs, as well as to gather gossip fueled by the frisson of finding lovingly signed cast-off books. I never knew the name of this bookstore, and I may even have the locale a little wrong, after all, it was just a rumor. Many years later I was at a lovely dinner in a private home when I was shown a copy of my first book— not where or when expected. It was the copy I had signed to Bernadette Mayer, and included a typed note confessing my admiration for her writing. Seeing it, full suddenly my “herte gan to colde.” Why I should have expected a poet I admired, yet for whom I was but one of a crowd of young wannabes, to cherish a book of mine I know not. But I did. That she didn’t even bother to destroy the note baffled me.

The second time I encountered a cast off copy of one of my books that included a personalized note was something else altogether, stranger and more painful. Steve and I were in Paper Nautilus (formerly Myopic), one of our favorite Providence bookstores. Steve was browsing poetry and found Michael Gizzi’s copy of my second book, The Sense Record. But Michael hadn’t sold it. Michael had recently died. The section was filled with his books. Mine was just one of the many lovingly inscribed to him on those shelves. A ghost outlined in a library disbanded. A cemetery section. In this instance, I was grateful my note remained in the book. Steve deftly rescued it back.

To see the note, and more about Michael and his generosity, visit my Company page.

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